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Fashion Freak Show : Stripes, Sex and Scandal on Stage, in True Gaultier Style

13 March 2024

Freak out! An eruption of stripes, sailor hats and cone bras packs a punch on the stage of the Fashion Freak Show, the part-fashion parade, part-pop concert and part-autobiographical whirlwind that narrates the life and legacy of fashion’s ‘enfant terribile’ Jean Paul Gaultier. Milestones and hallmarks defining the designer’s ‘universe’ were reimagined through a sassy surge of costumes, choreography, videos and even transgender teddy bears. ‘Just like a bear, I wanna take you there…’ And we’re only just warming up.

This show was oh-so-so Gaultier—as one would imagine—given he wrote, co-directed and, of course, designed its costumes—hundreds of them. First premiering in Paris at the Folies Bergère in 2019 and lapping up the praise of a bumper few seasons, Fashion Freak Show took a spin on the world stage, currently raising heart rates at Milan’s Teatro Arcimboldi with a lot of cheek (a lot of cheeks!). 

But can a stage show even come close to capturing the couturier's decades-long creative, cultural and societal legacy that gave the entire fashion system (and far beyond) a good old shake-up? Short answer: probably not. And perhaps that’s not even the point. Rather, Fashion Freak Show is like Gaultier’s personal ‘journal’ coming to life on stage, immersing audiences in a self-reflective voyage through his triumphs, even hardships, and his enduring sources of inspiration. Wrap this all up in Gaultier’s signature audacity, eccentricity and irreverence for the 'system’, and we’ve got a show on our hands, one that not only reiterates his legacy as the 21st century’s fashion ‘rebel’ and trailblazer but also as a global provocateur who subverted gender, cultural and class-based stereotypes through ‘outré’ creations that were, and still are, glorious statements of diversity and inclusivity.

No spoilers. Ok fine! bene, bien! We’ll just say that Monsieur Gaultier indulged in quite the strut down memory lane in the process of designing the costumes for this show, which are perhaps its most tantalising theatrical element. All of the couturier’s most iconic ‘fashion moments’ were in there, presented via a neat chronological zip through his career. These included Les marinières (his signature striped sailor shirts that need no introduction), his early designs as Pierre Cardin’s assistant (1970), his ‘radical’ denim, camouflage, leather and tulle creations that raised eyebrows in his first solo collection (1976), dominatrix vinyl from his erotic escapades in London (1980s), trompe-l'oeiltrickery that endured from one collection to the next, and of course, the conical bras, bustiers and corsets, symbolising his fascination with the power and sensuality of the female body. He liberated these particular garments from their historical modalities, and catapulted them into contemporary couture, especially that pink conical bustier he designed for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour (1990). The theatre context also presents Gaultier with a new opportunity to explore just how far he can push his Gaultier-ness outside of the fashion realm. He designed a series of excessively wicked wearable-art feats, especially for the show that combine enough bandages, bling and faux appendages to make you Gaultier-giddy. 

Gender, body and cultural diversity ruled on stage as if recreating the designer’s 1998 haute couture collection, which smashed more than just sartorial stereotypes. As men sauntered down the ‘runway’ in tulle skirts and corsets, and women strutted in baggy trousers, boxy blazers and androgynous accessories, audiences were reminded just how seductively and how artfully, Gaultier blurred gender lines in his designs. 'Couture', as this show reminds us, is for all shapes, all colours, and all people. The show highlights Gaultier’s impact on the evolution of queer fashion and his role as an icon of sexual pride as part of the global queer community, including his advocacy of AIDS awareness, the disease that took the life of his beloved partner Francis Menuge in 1990.

It seems that Gaultier and co-director Tonie Marshall succeed in capturing the designer's va-voom spirit on stage, reminding us that our flaws, eccentricities and differences are indeed our greatest gifts. The show’s theatrical value is bolstered by video projections (including ‘guest appearances’ from some of the designer’s closest friends and muses, including Rossy de Palma and Catherine Deneuve) and set designs that play their part in contextualising Gaultier’s collections and milestones with places, dates and evocative explanations. The result? A liberating stage spectacle that offers a universal message about the beauty of self-expression.

Suit up, lace up, buckle up, or down, depending on how you wear it. Fashion Freak Show is the kind of spectacle you’d expect to be thrust into if you were invited to one of Jean Paul Gaultier’s own private fashion parties. Nude gleaming limbs, acrobatics in stilettos, and hit after hit after hit (Madonna, Kylie, Myléne Farme) as the cherries on top. Nothing in life is certain, but, for Jean Paul Gaultier, stripes are certain, so is SCANDAL!, and so is SEX! And it’s all there in one high-voltage stage feast.

If there’s a designer we're willing to make a song and dance about, it’s JPG.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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